Willem Dafoe has always been one of the most fearless and feral actors of our modern age, testing the limits of his performances and taking very challenging projects and elevating them with his ferocity and tenacity in each performance. Inside takes Dafoe’s adrenaline a step further in Vasilis Katsoupis debut feature, a psychological thriller that plays on the elemental struggles and tropes of a survivalist film as Dafoe plays an art thief named Nemo, who ends up getting trapped in a penthouse of a wealthy art collector once the security system gets a glitch. The result is mostly intense, even when some of the writing by screenwriter Ben Hopkins comes up short in backstory and has a minor payoff that doesn’t quite live up to the tension of the first hour of the film.
On paper, Inside plays out like many other smaller-scale movies of late. The film revolves around a single actor (Dafoe) confined to one location) and for the majority of the running time, it plays out like Cast Away in a penthouse. Although it’s clever with these conventions, it defies audience expectations at the expense of a lot of the dramatic potential that gets co-opted by many sequences of Nemo chiseling away and building a self-made tower of Babel inside the apartment, which is depicted through some visceral moments that effectively play on room temperature where the thermostat is also malfunctioning.
Courtesy Focus Features
Tropes and conventions aside, Katsoupis and writer Hopkins have managed to craft a nerve-wracking film after all. The film also contains elements of a character study that offers some commentary on the everlasting power of art and how the ultra-wealthy love to horde it as a form of status over true appreciation. Even a little more thoughtful commentary could have been utilized the exposition to Nemo remains muddled, as do his motivations for why he is an art thief; just imagine if he were more of a Robin Hood style of thief. With just an opening and ending voice-over, Nemo explains three things that mattered to him when he was a child: “Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeping.” We get very few insights on who Nemo is, other than a flashback at an underground art-gallery where the narrative reveals the art-house collector (Gene Bervoets) discussing art and the concept of heaven and hell with Nemo, we really don’t get too many insights on Dafoe’s character. This puts a lot of weight on Dafoe’s performance, and he certainly delivers a very commanding performance in just one-setting with little human interaction.
The film begins with Nemo (Dafoe) disguised in a maintenance suit. He breaks into the penthouse, and quickly goes from room to room, selecting the paintings with directions on a walkie-talkie from his handler. Once he is given the alarm code, a malfunction in the security system locks down the penthouse, and the alarm system begins to go off in a soundproof apartment. He’s trapped inside the penthouse, which is designed like a booby trap. The pantry and refrigerator have very little food. There is no can opener, the taps are off, and there is only a mini-pool, a fish tank, and sprinklers that occasionally turn on in a mini conservatory next to the window. The extreme conditions cause Nemo to shiver under a blanket or severely sweat. As the temperature rose in the high temperature sequences, I found myself taking off my jacket, as the temperature kept getting colder, I felt the urge to place my jacket back on. That’s just how harrowing and effective the setting becomes in the film; it becomes a character in the narrative.
Courtesy Focus Features
Visually, this high-concept film is also a confined-space thriller that echoes the craft of David Fincher (think Panic Room), and Katsoupis brings enough visual flair with cinematographer Steve Annis to keep the action claustrophobic and alluring. Most of Dafoe’s character is attempting to get out of the penthouse, which is completely sealed in. The doors are locked, and the laminated windows are shatterproof. This leads Nemo on a journey of creating sketches, creating art, and even performing art to get him through the day. The only form of television is security camera footage throughout the apartment, in which Nemo becomes obsessed with the complex housekeeper he calls Jasmine (Eliza Stuyck). The highlights of the film actually involve the survivalist elements, as we see Dafoe maximize his emotion by struggling to find water to quench his thirst. Enduring extreme temperatures from the broken thermostat as it gets too hot and then too old. Weeks pass by, with little food, and Nemo goes to dire needs for survival, which involve cooking fish from the aquarium and even eating canned dog food as the toilet won’t flush. There are actually many grotesque moments in the film that make Triangle of Sadness seem docile. On top of that, Nemo endures tooth decay, hunger, and mass injuries as he attempts to escape the penthouse. Dafoe delivers quite an assertive performance that is also quite vulnerable.
While the film takes a more cerebral approach in the third act that carries the film out of being a basic survival narrative, the impact isn’t quite there due to how underwritten Nemo is. Quibbles aside, as the story progresses, Nemo ends up becoming an artist himself out of boredom. He ends up destroying the apartment and ends up creating it as he utters the words “in order to create, one must also destroy.” The film ends up making a compelling statement about art and the creative process, but the payoff feels somewhat arbitrary as so much potential for ambiguity is built up and its execution is done in less cryptic ways. Nevertheless, this helps shape the film’s philosophical view of artistry, a source of personal discovery, challenges, and self-destruction. Something Dafoe played so well in Julian Schnabel’s 2018 masterpiece At Eternity’s Gate. While a mixed bag in some of the writing, Inside works better as an allegory of sorts, and the film should be embraced mainly for Dafoe in pulling off a one-man chamber piece. Many will walk away pontificating on the themes of the narrative, others will be perplexed on the motivations behind why Dafoe’s Nemo character is trapped to begin with, but many of the scenes that follow are quite effective. While the ending is slight, the film overall will certainly leave a haunting impact, and it marks Katsoupis as a director to watch.
Inside is now playing in theaters.